From Star Wars to Spider-Man to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the movies seem full of my childhood heroes these days. It's always fun to experience the stories you grew up with through adult eyes. So when I heard about a new version of Annie, starring Quvenzhané Wallis, I was intrigued and excited. And the movie hardly disappoints. It's top-grade nostalgia and can certainly be enjoyed on those terms. But at a deeper level, this Annie tells a very different story from that of the 1982 original film.
Both versions start with a parentless child desperately looking for her birth family. She crosses paths with an isolated business magnate who spends time with her to soften his public image. And both stories end up with said millionaire realizing how lonely he is and how he needs connections with other people, specifically with Annie. It reminds me of Christ's instruction to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rest destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." Really, it's the very best kind of family values.
This 2014 Annie, however, goes on to describe the good life in a way I found disquieting. Will Stacks - this version's Daddy Warbucks, played by Jamie Foxx - needs Annie and the love she represents in his life, which is good. Yet equally, Annie needs him to prosper. In a song new to the 2014 version, Stacks tells Annie to pursue her dreams, that she can become anything she wants to be. He encourages her and supports her, which is good, but the future he's pointing her toward is one where she can "have it all" - where "all" means working to achieve the comfort and security wealth can buy, not necessarily meaningful work that makes her happy or helps others.
What does this say to people who strive yet fail to achieve earthly possessions?
Compare that to the original version, in which Annie is played by Aileen Quinn. She is definitely wowed by Daddy Warbucks' mansion (who wouldn't be?) and she enjoys their pricey adventures, but you never get the impression she needs them in order to flourish, or that achieving something like that will fulfill her. Instead, she needs a family, someone to support her in more than just the material way. And this was equally true for Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney), one of the few rich men left at the height of the Depression, yet a lonely soul.
The new film’s idea that anyone can get rich if they work hard is a comfortable one built on the enduring appeal of the "American dream." But in the past six years that I've lived in the Bronx, I've met many Annies - smart, passionate, indomitable men and women who work hard but lack the opportunities to do well financially. If this Annie's message is that a good life is one in which effort equals material success, what does this say to people who strive yet fail to achieve earthly possessions?
I believe in stories and in their ability to inspire positive change. My faith is built on the best one I've ever heard: that the God of the universe loves us so much He would literally die for us - death on a cross, no less. Stories matter because they help us imagine not how things are but how they could (and should) be. They are transcendent. And the Christian story in particular gives hope to those who most need it, those who don't easily find it elsewhere. Telling good stories matters, and I'm not sure that the latest Annie manages that.